By David Bandurski — In early August, as the stage was set for the Beijing Olympic Games and news about poisonous milk powder was being suppressed by corporations and officials, scores of print media and major Web portals across China ran a story about how the dairy brand Sanlu, now at the center of the dairy industry scandal, had been honored in an award campaign called “30 Years: Brands that Have Changed the Lives of Chinese.”

No one could have seen it so clearly then, but the “30 Years” award campaign, hosted by Huaxia Times in cooperation with China Central Television, Sina.com, China National Radio and other media organizations, was the plainest illustration of a media system gone horribly rotten, in which media are pushed to profit richly from falsehoods even as public interest news is systematically suppressed.

jia-jingxue-on-xinhua-website_with-torch.JPG

[ABOVE: Screenshot of Xinhua website coverage showing Sanlu PR manager Jia Jingxue (being held up) as an official bearer of the Olympic flame.]

The August 6 article reporting the “30 Years” honor bestowed on Sanlu was written by Miao Wanfu (苗万福) and appeared virtually everywhere — in scores of newspapers, at the website of the official People’s Daily, at Tianya, at Sina, and at a leading food industry website, to mention just a few.

And who is Miao Wanfu?

As the Oriental Daily and others have reported, Miao runs Sanlu’s internal public relations machine. But readers of the above “news” would never have guessed as much. Miao is identified — when a byline appears at all — as “correspondent Miao Wanfu” (通讯员苗万福).

On the People’s Daily website, Miao manages to come off as a staff reporter for the CCP’s top daily. And when the report runs subsequently at China’s leading food industry website it is attributed again to “correspondent Miao Wanfu.” We are told that the news comes from “People’s Daily Online.”

Misrepresentations of this sort are perpetuated across China’s media, where a lack of professional standards means “news” space is stuffed routinely with material from valuable advertising clients.

Here is “correspondent” Miao Wanfu again for People’s Daily Online, and for Hebei Daily. And here he is apparently reporting for the Central Propaganda Department’s Guangming Daily in June 2006 about the purchase of a stake in Sanlu by New Zealand’s Fronterra Group.

When Southern Metropolis Daily broached the topic last week of how Chinese media had contributed to the tragedy of China’s tainted milk crisis it was opening up a great big can of worms.

There are many hard and searching questions to answer. As the newspaper asked, why, before the breakthrough report by Oriental Daily journalist Jian Guangzhou (简光洲), did media suggest only that “certain brands” of milk powder had problems? And why, even as questions were beginning to surface about the safety of milk powder from Sanlu, were the company’s supposed contributions to the lives of ordinary Chinese being trumpeted so loudly.

Chinese media will not be given an opportunity to delve very deeply into these questions. The answers, after all, point to the ugliness of state media controls and the failure of media policy as well as to runaway commercial greed. The Chinese media’s role in the tainted milk crisis should remind us again just how poisonous the combination of rigorous press controls and unfettered commercialization can be.

Another Sanlu public relations manager, Jia Jingxue (贾静雪), is perhaps the best icon for the false messages drummed into the Chinese public about the company’s products even as news of life-and-death importance was being suppressed in the interest of corporate profits and China’s Olympic image.

As the Olympic torch — the “sacred flame,” as it was generally called in China’s media — made its way through the city of Shijiazhuang on July 30, Sanlu’s Jia Jingxue was official torch bearer number 36, right behind local cultural official Zhou Jian (周健), and the two of them struck the following memorable pose.

pose-3.jpg

A simple Chinese-language search for “Jia Jingxue” makes it clear that she was one of the most prolific contributors to the relay of lies about Sanlu that were perpetuated throughout China’s media.

Take, for example, this August 2007 news report from China Food Quality News (中国食品质量报), the newspaper